Cantonese phonology

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The standard pronunciation of the Cantonese language is that of Guangzhou, also known as Canton, the capital of Guangdong Province. Hong Kong Cantonese is related to the Guangzhou dialect, and the two diverge only slightly. Yue dialects in other parts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, such as Taishanese, may be considered divergent to a greater degree.

Cantonese syllables[edit]

A syllable generally corresponds to a word or character. Most syllables are etymologically associated with either standard Chinese characters or colloquial Cantonese characters. Modern linguists have discovered there are about 1,760 syllables being used in the entire Cantonese vocabulary, which cover the pronunciations of more than 10,000 Chinese characters. Therefore, the average number of homophonous characters per syllable is six. Phonetically speaking, a Cantonese syllable has only two parts – the sound and the tone.[1]


A Cantonese sound (or sound segment) usually consists of an initial (onset) and a final (rime). There are about 630 sounds in the Cantonese syllabary.

Some of these, such as /ɛː˨/ and /ei˨/ (欸), /pʊŋ˨/ (埲), /kʷɪŋ˥/ (扃) are not common any more; some such as /kʷɪk˥/ and /kʷʰɪk˥/ (隙), or /kʷaːŋ˧˥/ and /kɐŋ˧˥/ (梗) which has traditionally had two equally correct pronunciations are beginning to be pronounced with only one particular way uniformly by its speakers (and this usually happens because the unused pronunciation is almost unique to that word alone) thus making the unused sounds effectively disappear from the language; while some such as /kʷʰɔːk˧/ (擴), /pʰuːi˥/ (胚), /tsɵy˥/ (錐), /kaː˥/ (痂) have alternative nonstandard pronunciations which have become mainstream (as /kʷʰɔːŋ˧/, /puːi˥/, /jɵy˥/ and /kʰɛː˥/ respectively), again making some of the sounds disappear from the everyday use of the language; and yet others such as /faːk˧/ (謋), /fɐŋ˩/ (揈), /tɐp˥/ (耷) have become popularly (but erroneously) believed to be made-up/borrowed words to represent sounds in modern vernacular Cantonese when they have in fact been retaining those sounds before these vernacular usages became popular.

On the other hand, there are new words circulating in Hong Kong which use combinations of sounds which had not appeared in Cantonese before, such as get1 (note: this is non standard usage as /ɛːt/ was never an accepted/valid final for sounds in Cantonese, though the final sound /ɛːt/ has appeared in vernacular Cantonese before this, /pʰɛːt˨/ - notably in describing the measure word of gooey or sticky substances such as mud, glue, chewing gum, etc.); the sound is borrowed from the English word get meaning "to understand".

Initial consonants[edit]

Initials (or onsets) refer to the 19 initial consonants which may occur at the beginning of a sound. Some sounds have no initials and they are said to have null initial. The following is the inventory for Cantonese as represented in IPA:

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
plain Sibilant plain lab.
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop plain p t t͡s k ¹ (ʔ
aspirated t͡sʰ kʷʰ¹
Fricative f s h
Approximant l j¹ w¹

Note the aspiration contrast and the lack of voicing contrast for stops. The affricates are grouped with the stops for compactness in the chart.

  1. Some linguists prefer to analyze /j/ and /w/ as part of finals to make them analogous to the /i/ and /u/ medials in Mandarin, especially in comparative phonological studies. However, since final-heads only appear with null initial, /k/ or /kʰ/, analyzing them as part of the initials greatly reduces the count of finals at the cost of only adding four initials.
  2. Some linguists analyze a /ʔ/ (glottal stop) when a vowel other than /i/, /u/ or /y/ begins a sound.

The position of the coronals varies from dental to alveolar, with /t/ and /tʰ/ more likely to be dental. The position of the coronal affricates and sibilants /t͡s/, /t͡sʰ/, /s/ are usually alveolar ([t͡s], [t͡sʰ], and [s]), but can be postalveolar ([t͡ʃ], [t͡ʃʰ], and [ʃ]) or alveolo-palatal ([t͡ɕ], [t͡ɕʰ], and [ɕ]), especially before the front high vowels /iː/, /ɪ/, /yː/. Some speakers treat these as different phonemes depending on the character, e.g. 所 would be /ɕɔː˧˥/ and 鎖 would be /sɔː˧˥/, while 詩 would be /ɕiː˥/ and 思 would be /siː˥/, somewhat resembling Middle Chinese phonology. Other speakers treat the coronal variants as allophones of a single phoneme, pronouncing both 所 and 鎖 as /sɔː˧˥/ as the vowel is more open, while pronouncing both 詩 and 思 as /ɕiː˥/ as the vowel is more close. This trend is a marker of historical phonological change in Cantonese, as discussed below.

Some native speakers do not distinguish between /n/ and /l/, nor between /ŋ/ and the null initial.[2] Usually they pronounce only /l/ and the null initial. See the discussion on phonological shift below.

Vowels and terminals[edit]

Finals (or rimes) are the part of the sound after the initial. A final is typically composed of a main vowel (nucleus) and a terminal (coda). There are 53 finals (including the two syllabic nasals[3]) for all the sounds of the Cantonese dialect.

A main vowel can be long or short, depending on vowel length. This is the only indispensble part of a syllable. A terminal can be a tail vowel, a nasal consonant, or a stop consonant. Finals with no terminal are called open finals.

The following chart lists all possible finals in Cantonese as represented in IPA.

V ɛː ɔː œː Ø
Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Short
-i / -y aːi ɐi   ei     ɔːi   uːi     ɵy    
-u aːu ɐu ɛːu¹   iːu     ou            
-m aːm ɐm ɛːm¹   iːm                   ² 唔
-n aːn ɐn     iːn   ɔːn   uːn     ɵn yːn  
-ŋ aːŋ ɐŋ ɛːŋ     ɪŋ ɔːŋ     ʊŋ œːŋ       ŋ̩² 五
-p aːp ɐp ɛːp¹   iːp                  
-t aːt ɐt ɛːt¹   iːt   ɔːt   uːt     ɵt yːt  
-k aːk ɐk ɛːk     ɪk ɔːk     ʊk œːk      
¹Finals [ɛːu], [ɛːm], [ɛːp], and [ɛːt] only appear in colloquial pronunciations of characters. They are absent from some analyses and romanization systems.
²Syllabic nasals: [m̩] [ŋ̩]
Chart of vowels used in Cantonese

Based on the chart above, the following pairs of vowels are usually considered to be allophones:

[ɛː] - [e], [iː] - [ɪ], [ɔː] - [o], [uː] - [ʊ], and [œː] - [ɵ].

Although that satisfies the minimal pair requirement, some linguists find it difficult to explain why the coda affects the vowel length. They recognize the following two allophone groups instead:

[e] - [ɪ] and [o] - [ʊ] - [ɵ].

They view the main vowels /ɪ/, /ʊ/ and /ɵ/ as [e̝], [o̝] and [ɵ̞].

In that way, the phoneme set consists of seven long vowels and three short vowels that are in contrast with three of the long vowels, as presented in the following chart:

V ɔː ɛː œː Ø
Long Short Long Short Long Short Long Long Long Long
-i / -y aːi ɐi ɔːi ɵy   ei   uːi    
-u aːu ɐu   ou     iːu      
-m aːm ɐm         iːm      
-n aːn ɐn ɔːn ɵn     iːn uːn   yːn
-ŋ aːŋ ɐŋ ɔːŋ ʊŋ ɛːŋ ɪŋ     œːŋ   ŋ̩
-p aːp ɐp         iːp      
-t aːt ɐt ɔːt ɵt     iːt uːt   yːt
-k aːk ɐk ɔːk ʊk ɛːk ɪk     œːk  

When the three checked tones are separated, the codas -p, -t and -k become allophones of the nasal codas -m, -n and respectively, because they are in the complementary distribution in which the former three appear in the checked tones and the latter three appear in the non-checked tones. That explains the distribution of codas well.


Relative fundamental-frequency contours for six Cantonese tones with examples and Jyutping/Yale tone numbers (modified from [4])

Like other Chinese dialects, Cantonese uses tone contours to distinguish words, with the number of possible tones depending on the type of final. While Guangzhou Cantonese generally distinguishes between high-falling and high level tones, the two have merged in Hong Kong Cantonese, yielding a system of six different tones in syllables ending in a semi-vowel or nasal consonant. (Some of these have more than one realization, but such differences are not used to distinguish words.) In finals that end in a stop consonant, the number of tones is reduced to three; in Chinese descriptions, these "checked tones" are treated separately, so that Cantonese is traditionally said to have nine tones. However, phonetically these are a conflation of tone and final consonant; the number of phonemic tones is six in Hong Kong and seven in Guangzhou.[5]

Syllable type Open syllables Checked syllables
Tone name dark flat
dark rising
dark departing
light flat
light rising
light departing
upper dark entering
lower dark entering
light entering
Description high level,
high falling
medium rising medium level low falling,
very low level
low rising low level high level medium level low level
Yale or Jyutping
tone number
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (or 1) 8 (or 3) 9 (or 6)
Tone letter siː˥, siː˥˧ siː˧˥ siː˧ siː˨˩, siː˩ siː˩˧ siː˨ sɪk˥ sɛːk˧ sɪk˨
IPA diacritic síː, sîː sǐː sīː si̖ː, sı̏ː si̗ː sìː sɪ́k sɛ̄ːk sɪ̀k
Yale diacritic sī, sì si sìh síh sih sīk sek sihk

For purposes of meters in Chinese poetry, the first and fourth tones are the "flat/level tones" (平聲), while the rest are the "oblique tones" (仄聲). This follows their regular evolution from the four tones of Middle Chinese.

The first tone can be either high level or high falling usually without affecting the meaning of the words being spoken. Most speakers are in general not consciously aware of when they use and when to use high level and high falling. In Hong Kong, most speakers have merged the high level and high falling tones. In Guangzhou, the high falling tone is disappearing as well, but is still prevalent among certain words, e.g. in traditional Yale Romanization with diacritics, sàam (high falling) means the number three 三, whereas sāam (high level) means shirt 衫.[6]

The relative pitch of the tones varies with the speaker; consequently, descriptions vary from one sources to another. The difference between high and mid level tone (1 and 3) is about twice that between mid and low level (3 and 6): 60 Hz to 30 Hz. Low falling (4) starts at the same pitch as low level, but then drops; as is common with falling tones, it is shorter than the three level tones. The two rising tones, (2) and (5), both start at the level of (6), but rise to the level of (1) and (3), respectively.[7]

The tone 3, 4, 5 and 6 are dipping in the last syllable when is a interrogative sentence or a exclamatory sentence. 真係? is pronounced [tsăn˥ hăi̯˨˨˥].

The numbers "394052786" when pronounced in Cantonese, will give the nine tones in order (Romanisation (Yale) saam1, gau2, sei3, ling4, ng5, yi6, chat7, baat8, luk9), thus giving a good mnemonic for remembering the nine tones.

Like other Yue dialects, Cantonese preserves an analog to the voicing distinction of Middle Chinese in the manner shown in the chart below.

 Middle Chinese  Cantonese
Tone Initial Nucleus Tone Name Tone Contour Tone Number
Level voiceless   dark level ˥, ˥˧ 1
voiced light level ˨˩, ˩ 4
Rising voiceless dark rising ˧˥ 2
voiced light rising ˩˧ 5
Departing voiceless dark departing ˧ 3
voiced light departing ˨ 6
Entering voiceless Short upper dark entering ˥ 7 (1)
Long lower dark entering ˧ 8 (3)
voiced   light entering ˨ 9 (6)

The distinction of voiced and voiceless consonants found in Middle Chinese was preserved by the distinction of tones in Cantonese. The difference in vowel length further caused the splitting of the dark entering tone, making Cantonese (as well as other Yue Chinese branches) one of the few Chinese languages to have further split a tone after the voicing-related splitting of the Middle Chinese four tones.[8][9]

Cantonese is special in the way that the vowel length can affect both the rime and the tone. Some linguists[who?] believe that the vowel length feature may have roots in the Old Chinese language.

There are also two changed tones, which add the diminutive-like meaning "that familiar example" to a standard word. For example, the word for "woman" in a modified tone means "daughter". They are comparable to the diminutive suffixes 儿 and 子 of Mandarin. In addition, modified tones are used in compounds, reduplications and direct address to family members.[10] The two modified tones are high level, like tone 1, and mid rising, like tone 2, though for some people not as high as tone 2. The high level changed tone is more common for speakers with a high falling tone; for others, mid rising (or its variant realization) is the main changed tone, in which case it only operates on those syllables with a non-high level and non-mid rising tone (i.e. only tones 3, 4, 5 and 6 in Yale and Jyutping romanizations may have changed tones).[11] However, in certain specific vocatives, the changed tone does indeed result in a high level tone (tone 1), including speakers without a phonemically distinct high falling tone.[12]

Historical change[edit]

Like other languages, Cantonese is constantly undergoing sound change, processes where more and more native speakers of a language change the pronunciations of certain sounds.

One shift that affected Cantonese in the past was the loss of distinction between the alveolar and the alveolo-palatal (sometimes termed as postalveolar) sibilants, which occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This distinction was documented in many Cantonese dictionaries and pronunciation guides published prior to the 1950s but is no longer distinguished in any modern Cantonese dictionary.

Publications that documented this distinction include:

  • Williams, S., A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect, 1856.
  • Cowles, R., A Pocket Dictionary of Cantonese, 1914.
  • Meyer, B. and Wempe, T., The Student's Cantonese-English Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1947.
  • Chao, Y. Cantonese Primer, 1947.

The depalatalization of sibilants caused many words that were once distinct to sound the same. For comparison, this distinction is still made in modern Standard Mandarin, with most alveolo-palatal sibilants in Cantonese corresponding to the retroflex sibilants in Mandarin. For instance:

Sibilant Category Character Modern Cantonese Pre-1950s Cantonese Standard Mandarin
Unaspirated affricate /tsœːŋ/ (alveolar) /tsœːŋ/ (alveolar) /tɕiɑŋ/ (alveolo-palatal)
/tɕœːŋ/ (alveolo-palatal) /tʂɑŋ/ (retroflex)
Aspirated affricate /tsʰœːŋ/ (alveolar) /tsʰœːŋ/ (alveolar) /tɕʰiɑŋ/ (alveolo-palatal)
/tɕʰœːŋ/ (alveolo-palatal) /tʂʰɑŋ/ (retroflex)
Fricative /sœːŋ/ (alveolar) /sœːŋ/ (alveolar) /ɕiɑŋ/ (alveolo-palatal)
/ɕœːŋ/ (alveolo-palatal) /ʂɑŋ/ (retroflex)

Even though the aforementioned references observed the distinction, most of them also noted that the depalatalization phenomenon was already occurring at the time. Williams (1856) writes:

The initials ch and ts are constantly confounded, and some persons are absolutely unable to detect the difference, more frequently calling the words under ts as ch, than contrariwise.

Cowles (1914) adds:

"s" initial may be heard for "sh" initial and vice versa.

A vestige of this palatalization difference is sometimes reflected in the romanization scheme used to romanize Cantonese names in Hong Kong. For instance, many names will be spelled with sh even though the "sh sound" (/ɕ/) is no longer used to pronounce the word. Examples include the surname (/sɛːk˨/), which is often romanized as Shek, and the names of places like Sha Tin (沙田; /saː˥ tʰiːn˩/).

After the shift was complete, even though the alveolo-palatal sibilants were no longer distinguished, they still continue to occur in complementary distribution with the alveolar sibilants, making the two groups of sibilants allophones. Thus, most modern Cantonese speakers will pronounce the alveolar sibilants unless the following vowel is /iː/, /i/, or /y/, in which case the alveolo-palatal (or postalveolar) is pronounced. Canton romanization attempts to reflect this phenomenon in its romanization scheme, even though most current Cantonese romanization schemes don't.

The alveolo-palatal sibilants occur in complementary distribution with the retroflex sibilants in Mandarin as well, with the alveolo-palatal sibilants only occurring before /i/, or /y/. However, Mandarin also retains the medials, where /i/ and /y/ can occur, as can be seen in the examples above. Cantonese had lost its medials sometime ago in its history, reducing the ability for speakers to distinguish its sibilant initials.

In modern-day Hong Kong, many younger speakers are unable to distinguish between certain phoneme pairs and merge one sound into another. Although that is often considered as substandard and is denounced as being "lazy sounds" (懶音), it is becoming more common and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions. (See Hong Kong Cantonese.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ While most linguists state that Syllable = Sound + Tone, a few prefer to say that Tonal Syllable = Base Syllable + Tone. For the sake of simplicity, this article chooses to use the first equation.
  2. ^ Virginia Yip, Stephen Matthews (2001) Basic Cantonese: A Grammar and Workbook, Routledge, pages 3-4.
  3. ^ The nasal consonants [m] and [η] can occur as base syllables in their own right, and are thus known as syllabic nasals.
  4. ^ Alexander L. Francis. "Perceptual learning of Cantonese lexical tones by tone and non-tone language speakers". Journal of Phonetics. Retrieved April 2008. 
  5. ^ Bauer, Robert S.; Benedict, Paul K. (1997). Modern Cantonese Phonology. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 119–120. ISBN 978-3-11-014893-0. 
  6. ^ Caihua Guan (2000) English-Cantonese Dictionary: Cantonese in Yale Romanization. New-Asia - Yale-in-China Language Center. Compare page 474's entry for "shirt" with page 530's entry for "three".
  7. ^ Jennie Lam Suk Yin, 2003, Confusion of tones in visually-impaired children using Cantonese braille (Archived by WebCite® at
  8. ^ Norman, Jerry (1988) Chinese (Cambridge Language Surveys), Cambridge University Press, page 216
  9. ^ Pan-Hsing Ting, Cheng-teh James Huang (ed.), Yen-hui Audrey Li (ed.) (1996) "Chapter 4: Tonal Evolution and Tonal Reconstruction in Chinese". New horizons in Chinese linguistics, Springer, page 150.
  10. ^ Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip, Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar, London: Routledge 1994, sec. 1.4.2
  11. ^ Alan C. L. Yu (2007) "Understanding near mergers: the case of morphological tone change in Cantonese". Phonology 24 (2007) 187-214, page 191. Available online; page 5.
  12. ^ Alan C. L. Yu "Tonal Mapping in Cantonese Vocative Reduplication" Available online, accessed 4th November, 2011